On intellectual inbreeding and Southern Baptist education…

Southern Baptists are perhaps inordinately fearful and thoroughly ignorant of Liberation theologies. Whether the Black liberationism of James Cone, or the Roman Catholic liberationism of Gustavo Gutierrez, or the Feminist liberation of Rosemary Reuther, or the Gay liberation of Marcella Althius-Reid, or the Jewish liberationism of Marc Ellis, Evangelicals as a whole, and Southern Baptists in particular avoid investigating and assessing the contributions and dangers of Liberation Theology, much to our own peril.

During my entire course of study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and briefly at Southwestern, I know of no serious engagement with Liberation Theology. There was the passing reference in Systematic Theology, and an occasional mention in Church History, but when it came to actual study, we were all woefully uninformed. When it was mentioned, Liberation Theology was characterized as an aberrant Marxist political agenda unworthy of serious consideration.

In fact, I think that Southern Baptists have been denied a rewarding opportunity to explore themes of social justice and hermeneutical emphases highlighted by men like Gutierrez, Cone, Ellis, and others. Embracing the study of Liberation Theology does not require embracing the central tenets thereof, but the anti-intellectualism of our fundamentalist fathers inhibits any honest reading of the primary theological influence found in the Southern Hemisphere, and a minor, yet very real influence in the Northern.

Essentially, Liberation Theology is guided by a concern for the poor and oppressed. Liberation theologians take seriously the words of Jesus, who told his disciples that the blessed poor were those for whom the gospel was intended. Whether our exorbitant materialism or our latent classism and racism have kept us from seeing this major New Testament emphasis, I do not know.

Liberation theology is concerned with revolution, both political and ecclesial. The powers of governmental and magisterial authorities have been allowed to flourish on the backs of the worker. The widening gulf of economic disparity has closed our eyes to the epidemic poverty, and people for whom Christ died are shuffled aside in our efforts to reach the “target groups” of our evangelistic strategies.

I owe my initial substantive exposure to Liberation Theology to my Baylor professor, Marc Ellis, a man listed among the most dangerous intellectuals in the American academy by David Horowitz. At first, Ellis and I had a strained relationship. He is an agnostic Jew with strong Democratic leanings and complete disdain for aggressive proselytization. I was an insufferable proponent for the need for Evangelical parity in the American academy, with a holdover belief that Baylor was a stronghold of theological and political liberalism.

When we first met in seminar, Ellis made no bones about his frustration with the fresh crop of Evangelicals entering Baylor’s doctoral program. Our reputation on campus among the tenured faculty was tainted by early and uncharitable discourse with our liberal counterparts. Before any engagement occurred, Ellis demanded a meeting with me. With faculty and students hiding down the hall, my professor pounded his fists on his desk and told me that he “didn’t give a damn what I thought.” In a scene reminiscent of A Few Good Men, Ellis asked me if “we were clear?” I responded, “crystal,” and left his office.

Over the course of a semester, I grew in profound appreciation for Ellis’ tenacity, intellectual commitments, and pedagogical method. He made you angry, knowing that your anger would force you to listen to him more attentively in order to argue with him. He welcomed dissent, when the time came for discussion, and forced us to dialogue with students who had other personal and scholarly commitments. He busted up our Evangelical caucus, and we are all the better for it.

I will never forget the day Ellis assigned me to a small group with two students, one of whom was a Roman Catholic and the other a lesbian. In what seemed like the introduction to a joke – three students walk into a bar, etc. – we engaged one another in collegial conversation about the ethical and moral questions raised by Christian higher education. For once, on a Baptist university campus, I felt like the minority.

I think that was Ellis’ point: to force Christians to sense some degree of oppression, harassment, and ridicule that other religious and irreligious groups feel on the campus of a Christian university. You don’t get that in a seminary education, and it is understandable that a confessional institution would limit such free exchange of ideas.

Nevertheless, I think some of Southern Baptist insensitivity to the perspectives of Latino immigrants in border states, legal or otherwise, impoverished Blacks along the Mississippi Delta, ethnic Jews in New York, Chinese Buddhists in San Francisco, and even the Gay and Lesbian sense of legal discrimination, owes to the fact that most of our preachers are never exposed to the cultural varieties available in a graduate program of non-Southern Baptist commitments. Of course, Southern Baptists will not graft many of these perspectives into our own, but we are fooling ourselves if we think our churches are better served by cultural isolation that inhibits meaningful dialogue with these groups.

In fact, so concerned are Southern Baptists to limit exposure to these cultural influences that we are forced to consider the perennial efforts to remove our kids from public schools. Southern Baptists are so increasingly fearful of non-Southern Baptist college education that all of our seminaries have launched colleges to provide a confessional uniformity and indoctrination program to further avoid intellectual cross pollination. Once we keep them from a university setting by attending our Bible colleges, we enroll them in our Southern Baptist seminaries for more intellectual inbreeding. Those that keep their grades up are encouraged to apply for Southern Baptist doctoral degrees. Most of our professors are graduated and hired from Southern Baptist schools, primarily because they can’t get academic jobs outside of Southern Baptist contexts with their seminary doctorates.

Speaking of which, what on earth is a doctoral degree in evangelism or ministry supposed to offer? Can anybody explain with any substantive and convincing argument why we need seminary degrees in homemaking, sports evangelism, jazz music, or the like? I’m quite convinced that there is nothing academically valuable, ministerially profitable, or intellectually stimulating about these silly and superfluous disciplines.

Call me an elitist, though elitism is the only reason that Southern Baptist pastors even consider that empty pedigree called a D.Min. Call me a liberal, though Southern Baptists have never fully realized that our congregational polity, our trustee system, even our commitment to church-state separation – decreasingly esteemed as it is – are informed by the liberal tradition.

Those pastors and professors who contribute most to Southern Baptist life are those who have explored more diverse philosophical and theological perspectives than their counterparts of limited interaction with the mainline academy.

Honestly, I believe that our seminaries are doing a disservice to the convention by operating those colleges, which are technically a violation of their charters, and I can think of no reason to continue them, unless it’s because we need to supply jobs for the men and women who we’ve convinced to get a seminary doctorate but are who are thereby less likely to find employment in the American academy. In fact, if our convention would ever get the nerve to merge our seminaries under one trustee board, streamline our curriculum and course offerings, and elect a chancellor of theological education, we might be able to refocus our institutions on the reason for their existence, which is not, incidentally, to provide alternatives to secular undergraduate and graduate programs of theology.

Or maybe we’re supposed to expect that a homeschooled boy with a Bible college undergraduate, a seminary degree in counseling, and a doctorate in evangelism is supposed to be a better equipped churchman. And just maybe a homeschooled girl with a bachelor’s degree in homemaking, a seminary degree in women’s studies, and a nonresident Th.D. from the University of South Africa is supposed to make a better housewife.

Moreover, if this is all we can expect from our seminaries, we’re better off burning them to the ground, collecting the insurance, and establishing an endowed scholarship fund to send our brightest and finest to secular graduate programs for more a more vigorous and circumspect academic preparation. It seems to me that more harm than good is done to Southern Baptist churches by ministers who are trained in environments divorced from service to the churches. Instead of addressing the need for more pastor-theologians — men like Buddy Gray of Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham or Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C. — we are content to populate our pulpits with men more thoroughly trained in F.A.I.T.H. or the history of the Cooperative Program than the sacred art of hermeneutics, biblical exposition, and classic pastoral care. Thus we may have created a vortex of ministry unpreparedness and biblical illiteracy from which we cannot extract ourselves, unless drastic measures are taken — and taken fast.

How Southern Baptist seminary administrators and educators expect to influence the culture without training their students to understand and even appreciate (gasp!) the cultural influences with which they will contend is beyond me. Decrying secular humanism, feminism, postmodernism, and relativism does not an education make. Fear-mongering about possible drifts toward ecumenism, Neo-orthodoxy, or liberal Protestantism may elicit shouts of amens, but it does very little to address the diminished evangelistic returns that the Conservative Resurgence now faces. In fact, I’ve found that most Southern Baptists who speak about these things comprehend very little of the intellectual underpinnings and cultural appeal of these worldviews.

50 thoughts on “On intellectual inbreeding and Southern Baptist education…

  1. Ben, I completely agree. I graduated from NOBTS in ’95 and was granted entrance into the PhD program in preaching that same year (though I never started due to being called to a church). I can remember so many of the dissertations I looked at in thinking about my potential topic. I was quite unimpressed. I should have known why. In the last couple of years, theological terms have arisen in conversation that I can honestly say I was never taught. I was never exposed to theologies of many other traditions.

    Now that I am in Delaware, I had no other way of continuing a theological education except a DMin or to pursue a secular degree. I chose to do a DMin but not at a SBC seminary. I wanted more, and in the context of what I was considering, the SBC offered nothing or no one of any scholarship.

    I was frightened to see the DMin projects of NOBTS in recent years. They included things like “Teaching the adult I sunday school class at such & such church to be good stewards of their money”. My thoughts? Listen to Dave Ramsey.

    My choice was a DMin at George Fox Seminary in Portland (a quaker, free methodist school) where I would be mentored and taught by Len Sweet. That exposure I was deprived of at NOBTS has come back to bite me. I’m having to catch up on theological terms I am unfamiliar with, theologians I’ve never heard of, and all kinds of traditions & views that force me to think and discern, to critic and process. And I am the better person for it. This has been one of the most enriching experiences in my life.

    Thankfully, my work is not based on a project as listed above, but an actual research dissertation if I so choose. Another track that I can, and have chosen to take, is to do an abstract with an artifact, which will be in my case a publishable manuscript on developing a theology of transformational change that incorporates theology, neurosciences, complexity theory and linguistics.

    Based on what I see from our seminaries, that exposure continues. Unfortunately, outside of the south, this kind of teaching with continue to only create an ignorant denomination who cannot converse with those outside of Christianity or our own faith tradition.

    Thanks for your thoughts here.

  2. aaahhhh….the real Ben Cole finaly shows up for the dance! Nice to meet you Ben…we wondered when you would arive with you toes a tapp’en! Now, as the band starts to play your favorite tune…

  3. Ben,

    A fellow PhD student from SWBTS in the days before the fundamentalist takeover did his dissertation in the area of liberation theology. You might check out his work: “A critical analysis of liberation theology in the works of Jose Miguez Bonino and Ronald J. Sider,” by Roy Cooper, Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986. Bonino is a well-known Argentine theologian who taught at ISEDET in Buenos Aires. Roy on the other hand served (and I think still does) with the IMB. He taught for awhile at the seminary in Costa Rica before the IMB withdrew support for the school in San Jose and the last I knew was doing leadership training among Baptists in the Caribbean while living in Mexico.

  4. Ben,

    It may be a good thing for seminary students to study the dangers of Liberation Theology. That may be a very good thing, but to say they need to consider the contributions of Liberation Theology is just not needful. There are none.

    In Latin America people are suffering in unthinkable ways due to such a worldview as is held by those that promote the “smoke screen” of Liberation Theology. In reality it is nothing more than neo-Marxism with a little (j)esus wrapped around it. Yet, it is far more dangerous than the Marxist doctrine of old. I am sure you have read these things so there is no need to make an effort to define this evil here.

    This doctrine of Liberation Theology (neo-Marxism) is becoming a dominant, if not THE dominant, perspective being taught on many university campuses in North America. And that is the difference. It is taught in sterile, safe university classrooms in North America. It is lived out in fear, ignorance, real poverty, filth and death in Latin America and other places.

    Georgie Anne Geyer states that “the percentage of Marxist (Liberation Theology) faculty numbers can range from 90 percent in some midwestern universities.” Arnold Beichman says that “Marxist academics are today’s power elite in the universities of America.” Herbert London said that “Every discipline has been affected by its preachment, and almost every faculty now counts among its members a resident Marxist scholar.” Roger Kimball stated that ” With a few notable exceptions, our most prestigious liberal arts colleges and universities have installed the entire radical menu at the center of their humanities curriculum at both the undergraduate and the graduate level.”

    (I mention the people above because I think they carry as much academic “weight” as James Cone or Marc Ellis, possibly more so, but I realize that is very subjective on my part.)

    I believe Fred Schwarz is right when he says, “The colleges and universities are the nurseries of Liberation Theology.” It would be a fearful thing for the average Christian student to get caught up in these “nurseries.”

    Our seminaries must teach the faith, the whole of it. They must teach men and women to be armed with the gospel of Christ, empowered by the Holy Ghost and confront a lost world. The report given as to the goals and measures by which to attain those goals at SEBTS given by Dr. Daniel Akin in San Antonio is the only hope to combat the death and destruction being perpetrated by Liberation Theology. Anything else will fail. Liberation Theology is “Hell yawning” to awaken from sleep to devour this world. We must take the gospel, the gospel alone, and attack the gates of Hell. If we do Hell cannot stand. Jesus said so.

    Ben, I do agree that we need to, we must, do a better job of teaching the dangers of Liberation Theology in our seminaries, but I have yet to see ant real contributions it has made to human life wherein by the presention of the gospel by living it out day by day could not and would not do the job in an absolute and compelete manner. Only Jesus can make a man, woman, boy or girl free (liberated). There are no real contributions to human life within the tenets of Liberation Theology. It is the great placebo (opiate) of the people.


  5. What? An Academic Missionality? Engaging a lost academic culture within the US?

    Now that’s a new thought.

    I thought only Al Mohler and Russ Moore were allowed to do that.

  6. C.B.:

    You and I are in complete agreement about the plight of those who’ve lived under Marxist regimes. We disagree, however, on the principle which I advance and you reject, namely, that anything positive can be gleaned from the Liberationist.


    I’m not sure what you mean.


    I understand your pain.


    It is irresponsible and fraudulent for Southern Baptists to send foreign missionaries into South America, Latin America, or South Africa without considerable education in the nuances of Liberation Theology. Good to know that we’ve had missionaries who understood themselves the great benefit of such a study for the sake of his calling.


    We at Baptist Blogger are grateful for both Drs. Mohler and Moore. We especially will not tolerate drive-by commenters who disparage or denigrate any Southern Baptist theologian who’s got enough sense to listen to Johnny Cash.

    He being dead yet speaketh.


  7. Ben,
    I like it when you do stuff like this. My exposure to Liberation Theology happen at SWBTS with some of our African American brothers in the dorm. Also it was in the news with Hannity & Colmes about Obama’s church affiliation. They did a segment with his pastor. Go to foxnews and type in a search for Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Sr. Pastor at Illinois Senator’s church and choose videos. Hannity himself has spent time in seminary also comes out in the interview.


  8. Sir, I will go you one better…how about all the M.Div’s doing at least 3 years working in a factory as ‘reality check’ internship before they start preaching? Union dues could be the first step in really understanding the ‘Liberation’ theology. Just think what this sort of experience could have done for Joel Osteen!

  9. Ben,

    I’ve written a summary and brief response to your criticisms on the Said At Southern Seminary student blog. It seems like you are primarily writing about Southwestern, but there is some carry over to our seminary as well. I hope some of our readers will be able to answer your points better than I did. Feel free to comment and correct my “summary” of your article.

  10. Ouch.

    My first day at BU and I stumbled onto drama in that class.

    For quite a while, I thought Dr. Ellis was a terribly frightening man. Before that semester I had just finished an internship with John Lewis. I was the progressive white man among Atlanta’s most powerful black leaders. And I was accepted. But when Ellis looked at me, I could feel him sniffing out any racist thought that had ever crossed my mind. Intimidating.

  11. I did my undergraduate work at Wingate University when James Peterson was still teaching there. He is now @ McMaster Divinity in the Great White North.

    Here are his credentials: B.A. Northwestern University, M.Div. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, M.A. University of Iowa, Ph.D. University of Virginia.

    I was among his first students at Wingate. He taught Theology and Theologians, I believe in the spring semester my Junior year. He told us on the first day that he was an orthodox evangelical, a GCTS graduate, a member of FBC Charlotte, and that we were welcome, as evangelicals. That said, unless we chose somebody like a Reformer or major evangelical Protestant theologian for our term paper, we would not be studying evangelical theology. He assumed that, as students majoring or minoring in Religous Studies we all should have a knowledge of what we believed and why, and he told us that he’d be happy to privately chat if there was a problem. Otherwise, we were going to study nothing but liberal theology for the very reasons you cite.

    We read widely that year in neo-orthodoxy, feminist theology, liberation theology and few others as I recall. It’s been so long, I can’t remember. His purpose was to expose us to the range of theological thinking in the modern period. We often compared and contrasted what we studied with broadly evangelical theology, but his constant question was “What can we learn from these?” He also asked us to consider where they had erred.

    We learned about neo-orthodoxy. I knew all about its epistemology by the time we completed that section, but I also understood that experience does have a valid role to play in the Christian life. I also learned not to be afraid to ask ontological questions the way Barth did. I’ve seen others pick up on that, for example, in an article in The Glory of the Atonement (ed. by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III), in which Bruce McCormack asks whether or not we might be able to resolve some of the tensions in our theology of atonement in the orthodox Reformed tradition by looking to Barth, not for his specific answers, but for some of his thinking on ontological questions, for he didn’t take the traditional answers for granted.

    Liberation Theology does teach us to care for the poor. On the other hand, Scripture doesn’t advocate a welfare state. At the same time, I think my Baptist brethren in America have in their zeal to defend theological truth, forgotten some of the more practical aspects of the Christian life.

    Here’s a concrete example. I live in Winston-Salem, NC, home of NC Baptist Hospital. Our local govt. has been squabbling for 2 years on the funding of a downtown health center. The two hospitals (NCBH and the local Forsyth Memorial Hosptial) have been collaborating, but they need some help from the community. Nobody wants to raise taxes, which is a a classic Republican Party line. Well, most of my Republican friends are conservative Christians, so they run with that same line. My question to them, to which I have yet to get an answer, is this: If we all agree we should care for the sick and the poor, and we need this center, and we all agree don’t want to raise taxes, then where is the fund to which all the churches here can contribute to raise money for it?

    It seems to me that our Baptist forefathers took such projects with more seriousness, and I can’t help but notice that this is often an American phenomenon regarding the way we treat the poor. I lived in Europe for a short period too, and evangelicals in Europe don’t have quite the attitude that we Americans have about health care and other issues. They look at us and wonder how we can vote with a clear consciience, for on the one hand the Dems seem to take helping the sick and the poor very seriiously, but they’re abortionists and apostates. On the other we have the Republicans who have a proclivity toward civil religion and are friendly to revealed religion, opposing homosexuality and abortion, yet on the other their attitude toward the marginalized is less than stellar. My European friends wonder at our 2 party system and think it must pose quite the dilemma. I agree, it does.

    CB is right, LT is harmful, but I agree, we can learn something from it, for it will be, I think a judgment upon many of us when we stand before the Great King and find out that apostates and liberals got that right, and we who have the gospel and know the King didn’t do so well in this generation, much to our forefathers’ dismay.

  12. Ben…thanks for your thoughtful post. This does not relate exactly to your post, but would you recommend someone considering seminary, who has grown up in the SBC, to go to a SBC seminary or to look other places? I just graduated college and intend to enroll in seminary within the next year. I have looked most heavily into schools like Gordon-Conwell and Trinity. As your post pointed out, every school has places it could improve, but do you think a person like me would be best served going outside my denominational background but still to a place in the realm of evangelicalism, to a SBC school, or to a school outside of evangelical circles? Thanks.

  13. So sorry, Ben (and whomever else you’ve got in there), but I did not in any way intend to denigrate either Dr. Mohler or Dr. Moore. Rather, I intended to point out that we default to their engagement and leave it alone ourselves.

    What would happen if we actually took bright conservative minds and dispersed them into the secular academy? Why must we always circle the wagons?

    It seems that the Anabaptist influence that has risen of late is taking us toward a Mennonite seclusionism, where we retreat from the world so that we won’t get dirty.

    You remember the Mennonite influence? 1609, John Smyth and Martin Helwys, Amsterdam on the shore of the Amstel River.

    I learned that bit of Baptist history at SWBTS. Barely a thimbleful. :)

  14. Oh, and in light of the need of firm exegesis to prove conservatism, one might choose to exegete this Scripture:

    James 2:14-18

    14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

    18But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
    Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

  15. Ryan:

    Thanks for asking. If I was going to attend a Southern Baptist seminary, I would choose between Southern, Southeastern, and Golden Gate. Southern, because it has an unparalleld intellectual tradition. Southeastern because it’s got the greatest potential for becoming the most theologically circumspect, confessionally observant, and missiologically driven seminary in the Evangelical world. Golden Gate, because if you go to the Los Angeles campus, you will have opportunity to study under John Sailhamer, who will teach you in a single course more theology, history, philosophy, and ethics than every other seminary course combined by the end of your degree.

    Oh, and don’t forget Beeson. We at Baptist Blogger go gaga when the words “Timothy George” are spoken.

    If I was going to a non-SBC Evangelical seminary, I would choose between Gordon Conwell or Trinity, as you mention. I would give definite consideration to Princeton, Duke, Yale and Harvard. If, however, you aspire to doctoral work, go to one of the above mentioned SBC seminaries for the quickest theology degree you can get, then shoot for the most respected university graduate program in the discipine of your interest.

    I feel like Dear Abby….or perhaps Sue Johanson. This is fun.


  16. Ben:

    I went to Emory University (Candler School of Theology) and many of my classmates were Gay Liberation, Feminist Liberation, and so on.

    I agree that we must not become a holy conservative club. Evangelical Bible commentaries, for example, tend to dwell on the obvious and avoid the tough questions (D.A. Carson is a blessed example otherwise). My greatest insights into the text have come from men like N.T. Wright (not liberal, but by SBC standards a little left) and Jacob Milgrom (the prince of commentators on Leviticus and a liberal Jew).

    I did not see anything I like in Liberation Theology. So I thought it an odd choice. Maybe it was your personal experience with Dr. Ellis and some things you learned from him.

    But here is the point — before the fall there was original glory, the image of God in man. That image is still there. It is unbiblical for the holy conservative club to say only people (make that men) who have the Holy Spirit and conservative theology have an glimpse into the truth. We should not be surprised when non-Christians or liberal Christians study anthropology, history, archeology, and even the scriptural text and add insight. The Holy Spirit is no corner on the truth and the holy conservative club only stifles it with rules about what can and cannot be explored.

    God is not afraid of truth. Why are some Christians?

    Derek Leman

  17. Ben,

    I remember participating in my seminary “texts and traditions” classes, where we read the writings of important Christian thinkers (from the Didache to Moltmann in three semesters), instead of reading what other people wrote about them. I had an epiphany by the time we got to Barth: “I’ve been cheated. I was told these thinkers are heretics, but there’s some good stuff in here.” Now, some of them may be heretics, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility, as you suggest, that we may have something to glean from them. I am grateful that I chose to pursue my graduate education at a broader evangelical institution. I was able to take an elective in liberation theology and read many of the major theologians in Latin American, Black, and feminist theology. I am neither a Marxist nor a liberal because of it, but I am prepared to engage those who are.

    Kudos to you for a thought-provoking post.


    I appreciate the need to expound the meaning of James 2, but I’m way more concerned about Matthew 25:31-46. I know you know it well.

    Grace and peace,


  18. I intentionally chose a seminary whose goal was not to indoctrinate me to a particular denominational interpretation but to expose me to myriad theologians and theologies. The diversity of our student body and the robust discussions with peers and professors was a most rewarding experience. Although my exposure to SBC students is limited, online interactions and anecdotes from colleagues who transferred from SBC seminaries seem to indicate that the curriculum is more reactionary.

    Although there are not any formal “seminary rankings” that I have found, one rarely – if ever – comes across SBC faculty when pursuing serious academic research. Personally I think the homeschool/Bible college/SBC seminary model is a poor choice, it explains much of the actions of the convention. Heck, the SBC always has been somewhat anti-intellectual: hence we hire pastors with no – much less seminary – education. This too explains a lot.

    While I am critical of Liberation Theology, my school hosted Gutierrez; I learned a lot from him. While this will shock many hard-core SBCers, most Christians do not share their particular values or view the Christian life through their particular lens. This too explains a lot.

  19. Bert Dominy used to teach a class at SWBTS on Modern theology. It was a great introduction to the Neo-Orthodox, eschatological, Feminist, and Liberation theologies. Also, each student must take responsibility for his/her education. I will never forget my first PhD seminar with Dr. Kirkpatrick. He told us that the library was our text book; now go read.

  20. Ben,
    Since my return from the sojourn in the Texas Hill Country I have marveled at your pen. This post represents my frustration. (OBU,SWBTS,SWBTS – all post takeover but also prior to Brister at OBU and Patterson or Hemphill at SWBTS). Populist preaching informed my reading selections lest I slide down the slippery slope into liberalism. 22 years after my BA, 19 years after my MDIV and 14 after my DMIN (in the day before 1 week seminars) I have found the need for cross-pollination and the exorcism of fear.

    Your post nearly brought tears to my eyes. I understand CB and others who remain constant in noting the errors and extremes of, for example, Liberation Theology. At the same time, your call to glean the good is worth bold type.

    When you wrote of the potential charge of elitism, I could not help but think most in the SBC live an elitism chiefly evident in our triumphalism and expressed in our civil religion masquerading as “faith in the public square.”

  21. Ben, I think you are right on. While I do not regret any of my educational choices and I am thankful for the men I had the privilege to learn from, I do not think our Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries adequately prepare us to minister in the real world. Sure, they do fine at preparing us to minister to the old folks who are happy to hear the same old stuff over and over again and hear us tweak liberals and vilify the evils of Hollywood, but they do not prepare us to deal with a lot of real world issues and questions. Maybe instead of sending seminary professors out to some resort to write a book on their sabbaticals we should send them to the inner cities of places like LA and New York or or other places around the globe and see how the methods they teach work in those places. Let them see how their clever pithy quips about buddah or muslims work when trying to minister to someone who is fresh off the boat from China or the middle east. I think a big part of our problem is that while our seminaries are full of great theologians, they have forgotten what it is like to do ministry in a part of the world where Christians are the minority, if they’ve ever had that experience at all.

  22. While I agree with your general thrust, I have to say that my undergrad education at OBU was well-rounded and overall less indoctrinating than I expected. Of course, it was all Biblical studies, very little formal theology. Still, I read feminist scholars in some classes and interacted with the various “historical Jesus” scholars, liberal and conservative. Just saying that there are some places and some professors getting it right. Doctors Bobby Kelley, Jerry Faught, and Mac Roark were all well worth hearing.

    In Christ,
    Tim Cook

  23. Ben,

    First time commentor. GREAT post. When i arrived at Southeastern a few years ago I was under the impression that my masters degree would be at least slightly more challenging than my bachelors degree. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I learned more theology and ethics and biblical interpretation from a secular bachelors program than Southeastern ever thought about teaching me. I was well at least familar with if not well versed in theologians that Southeastern was saving for its doctoral students. A real shame for the students and the churches they are now or soon will be serving.


  24. I hope there’s some spiritual doorman with a clipboard when we cark it.

    “Anyone who spent their lives spouting religious bullshit at the expense of living by the morals in them don’t get in!!!” No exceptions!!

    Examples include “love your fellow man and woman.”

    I’d love to see the faces of the faithful when they’re told they spent their entire life hating everyone and judging people by irrelevant groupings……and get nothing for it, all the while watching those of those “sinful” groups have the door opened and welcomed because they led their lives by a compassionate and caring moral compass.

  25. Fantastic post, Ben. I was introduced to Liberation Theology by Kenyan theologians in a Baylor study abroad program and returned to Waco the next semester to enroll in the first class Marc Ellis taught at Baylor. You should’ve known him in those days: he had no idea how parochial and sheltered most Baylor students are. He couldn’t believe that the vast majority of the standing-room only class lacked even a basic grasp of Jewish tradition and practice. I think many of the methods he uses now were a response to those first classes full of fascinated, confused undergraduates.

    Ellis agreed to supervise my undergraduate thesis, on the topic of the failure of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals to come up with a serious theological response to the Holocaust. It was a terrifying, difficult, and incredibly valuable educational experience that made it impossible for me to accept employment in an institution that doesn’t value the free pursuit of truth. I’m so thankful that Ellis and other professors pushed me to approach academic inquiry with a spirit of curiosity and conviction rather than fear.

  26. I’m just an onlooker, but I’m so glad to even HEAR of people in the Baptist denomination who want to examine and discuss what they will tell their congregations (and themselves) before they open their mouths. I think that the primary issue is one common throughout American society: suspicion of the intellectual and a reverence for quick action no matter how boneheaded and prone to long-term disaster.


  27. I’m old enough to have attended Southern Baptist related institutions of higher education prior to the conservative resurgence achieving domination of the trustee boards of the seminaries. The Bible department of the Baptist college I attended was still a relatively sheltered environment, though the fact that it was the only Christian-related college in Arizona at the time opened up the exposure to a number of students from other Christian traditions which was also a realistic learning experience.

    The undergraduate programs at the SBC seminaries are there because the enrollments of traditional students began to drop off after the resurgence took control of the trustee boards, and the “moderates” began sending their students to theological schools established at the state-convention related colleges and universities that were not controlled by fundamentalists. They are a means to keep students on the campus longer, and thus increase the numbers in order to keep the SBC cooperative program allotment coming in.

    Generally, it appears that there is an academic inferiority complex among Southern Baptists, a fear that we will lose the battle if we put our ideas out there in the academic market place to compete with everything else that is there. It’s almost as if we think we are the only ones who have a valid interpretation of theology, and don’t want it exposed to the scrutiny that the gospel has endured for 2000 years. It’s a package combining simplistic evangelicalism with the cultural influences of the post-Civil War South.

    Look at who we are as a denomination. In reality, though we speak of being the largest non-Catholic denomination in America, we are a group of about 7 million people who gather in churches that are mainly located in rural communities, small towns, and small cities in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Missouri. Outside of those areas, in the West, Midwest, and Northeast, the vast majority of members of SBC churches there are transplants from the South. We’ve made no real progress there in terms of reaching the “native” population because the culture isn’t tilted in a “Southern” direction. Even in the South, although the affluent suburbs of the big cities are loaded with megachurches, the inner cities are unhospitable environments to Southern Baptists, and our inability to cross into that culture is evidenced by hundreds of large church buildings built in the 40’s and 50’s to house substantial congregations of people who fled to the suburbs during the busing era and which now stand empty. Even our small town and suburban churches are largely made up of people well past 50 years of age. Our pride and joy as a denomination, our international missions work, is dwarfed by that of the Assemblies of God, Presbyterians and of course, the Catholic church.

    This is good stuff.

  28. After reading many of the posts in this thread I must offer a hearty THANK YOU to the majority of you. You have by your comments and thoughts motivated me more and more towards the values and goals of the conservative resurgence and caused me to thank our great God that the motifs and methods of so called modern academia have not become the sacred cow at which we as Southern Baptists bow.

  29. I don’t want to cheer too loudly- my cheering might be misinterpreted in that I am a United Methodist pastor. Nonetheless, I am doing so, quietly, encouragingly..

  30. I tried to leave this earlier, but glitched. If it shows up as a repeat, then feel free to delete it.


    I wholely affirm to you the full counsel of Scripture as God-breathed and fruitful for correction, instruction, etc.

    I certainly do not prize any one Scripture over another, though some have been more personally challenging, inspriational, corrective.

    However, my point is that, in the SBC in particular, we talk much about exegesis and the kerygma, but we favor the verses that talk about going and telling and tend to ignore the ones about simply helping the needy.

    If the Scripture is to be held as high as we fought to hold it, and I do hold it that high, then it is the FULL counsel of God’s Word to which we must hold.

    In other words, we need to quit preaching about preaching and start actually going and doing some. They are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are mutually beneficial. The one gives credence to the other.

  31. J.R. Maddox, I’ve long believed that if we really believe that all truth is God’s truth, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. Understanding other perspectives is NOT the same as accepting other perspectives. I think Ben’s point is that if the SBC wants to back itself into a corner of irrelevance in our society, shutting down intellectual inquiry is a great way to hasten that goal.

  32. As I read the post and the comments about what everyone wishes SBC seminaries could be and all the things our SBC seminaries should do differently to improve, I found myself thinking: why haven’t they looked at Truett Seminary? It already does what you’re describing, and it does it well. Everything Ben and others are looking for can be found there, since it takes the best of what SWBTS used to be and makes it smaller, more personal, and more intellectually demanding.

    The folks at Truett don’t care if you’re a BFM2000 SBCer–they’ll welcome you in and let you be who you are, even if they disagree with you. Of course, you’ll be challenged to think on your own and you’ll be exposed to people who think differently than you (like Liberation Theologians). But you’ll be embraced where you are, given the best training you can get, and you’ll be sent out prepared for ministry God has called you to. If that’s in an SBC church, great.

  33. Maybe it’s just me, but the thing that bothers me about post-CR Baptist theological education is the need to show that “that dog won’t hunt” to use Dr. Patterson’s phrase. We seem to assume that bright, articulate, college grads who have the drive to attend seminary to further their education don’t have sense enough to study a subject and come to a Spirit-led conclusion without the professor drilling them against it, often by reductio ad-absurdum, or outright neglect. Do we no longer believe Acts 5: 38-39?

    A well-put article. If we are to be a Godly force into the 21st century and beyond, we HAVE to engage both culture and other belief-systems. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

    John Fariss

  34. And yet, Mr. Maddox, as I read these comments here, what I see is the clear fact that Baptists who are exposed to the motifs and methods of modern academia seem to be much better equipped for ministry in a post-modern, post-denominational world, and much more successful at it, than those who are simply indoctrinated in schools controlled by the conservative resurgence. They seem to welcome the challenges of other worldviews, and are able not only to hold their own in offering a compelling defense of the Christian faith, but also to be able to win converts from cultures and communities that traditional Christian approaches have failed to win.

  35. Thanks for this thought-provoking essay. Wow, I’m glad there are some out there like you, Ben. Our seminaries need to be more than Bible schools.

    Florence in KY

  36. tossie1923

    Actually, they don’t. The one great need is for our seminaries to teach more of the Bible to our seminary students. Survey classes should be removed. Seminary students should study the Bible, both OT and NT, every semester, book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. If that were to be the case fewer would ever be caught up by anything like Liberation Theology.


  37. BTW, Jack,

    I am sure you believe fair is fair. Therefore, would it not be good for you to say you realize Ben did not give an endorsement of Liberation Theology in this post?

    I do want to thank you for doing so on Wade’s most recent post.


  38. You know, when you look at what the high end Reformed and Presby seminaries are doing, it kinda makes some of what our seminaries do pale in comparison. Ever seen an ordination exam for a Presby teaching elder? Every topic in a seminary curriculum is addressed, and we’re not just talking about confessional standards. I have on my pc 100 questions that have actually appeared on their exams just on church history alone. Some are quite deep. They do this for every major discipline too. Presby’s have always had a strong educational tradition. Ours has been more like the “stepchild.” I would remind you all that James Boyce studied under Charles Hodge and he was familliar with and able to interact with all the major movements of his day. He knew what Hodge knew, and, if you want to know what that was, read Hodge’s 3 Volume theology text for the information on the rising liberalism of his day. He wrote in dialogue with it. He understood it well.

    What Ben is talking about, Mr, Maddox, is having the ability to interact with folks like we do at Triablogue all the time. If you really think that Steve Hays, Jason Engwer, or I is in any way “liberal” then I submit you have the discernment of a snail. Just because we’ve taken the time to familiarize ourselves with an opponent does not mean we accept all his views have to offer. It generally gives us better insight to dismantle that opponent. Jason is not a Romanist, but he knows the Church Fathers better than some Patristic professors I have known. Steve can dialog about philosophy a great deal, but that does mean his theology is based on his scientific anti-realism. I have preference for historical theology and dogmatic standards, but that does not mean that my theology is based on the winds of church history, Baptist history, or what some confession states. i can do exegetical theology quite well. Dustin Segers is and Paul Manata are Van Tillians, and Van Til borrowed from Kant. That does make Van Til a Kantian theologian or Dustin or Paul Dutch Reformed or endorsers of Dutch Reformism or Kantian theology.

  39. Ben,

    My wife and I both entered SEBTS the same semester as you. Coming from a secular college where we had Liberation Theology and the like shoved down our throats, we found the course offerings at Southestern to be refreshing. Truthfully, they were more intelectually stimulating that anything that I had experienced up to that point. We were, as you rightly aknowledged, exposed to the tenants of Liberation Theology. I think you also know the difference between exposure to ideas and advocacy. Your assuption that every student is ready for exposure to ideas without little or no interpretation from the instructor is faulty. I know that my own theological development is due in part to professors in seminary who made it a priority to contrast orthodoxy with spurious notions of the truth. I didn’t need any more gooblety-gook. Most young men don’t.

    I also remember professors (who are still there, btw) that made us work hard to think in class discussion. They didn’t attempt to give us pat answers as we worked through topics. Professors in philosophy and ethics come to mind particulary. In another class, I recall visiting the religious centers of almost every major religion and cult in the Triangle area. I felt the exposure to other ideas and cultures was adequate for a seminary setting where the mission is to train men to rightly divide the truth of God’s Word and proclaim it. Academic instruction in the seminary should spring from the ground of supreme truth, not cheap imitations.

    Study in the text and how to apply it should be the highest priority.


  40. “What would happen if we actually took bright conservative minds and dispersed them into the secular academy? Why must we always circle the wagons?”

    This is a pipe dream. Do you really think that a conservative would be welcomed on faculty at noteworthy secular schools? You make it sound like secular universities are the end-all location for open-minded discussion. Nothing could be further from the truth. My own personal experience at public and liberal arts universities has been mirrored by many: they are as close-minded and arrogant as any fire-breathing fundamentalist. Get your facts straight. The one thing that is NOT tolerated in such an environment is conservatism. This is true for the student, and even more for faculty. Bright conservatives can’t get jobs at secular universities because they won’t even give someone like that an interview.

  41. No no no. Ben you poor naive soul. Bless your little pea pickin’ heart are you not paying attention? Have you learned so much but do not understand? If people are exposed to different ideas they may come to believe they can have ideas of their own. How can those in power hope to stay in power if everyone is thinking for themselves? It would be chaos. If people began thinking for themselves the next thing you know and everyone would be saying ridiculous things like, ‘God told me thus and such.’ Next thing you know people would study the Bible for themselves! How do expect to keep everyone believing in Premilliniel Dispensationalism if they are reading the Bible for themselves! They must be told what to think and what to believe. Everyone knows this. Take your own example of Liberation Theology. If we studied this we would have a multitude of issues to deal with. For one, as you noted we would have to deal with the issues of the poor. Recognizing that the LT guys are loopy wont help. People will say, ok they don’t have the answer but what IS the answer? People would think maybe we should DO something and you know what that will lead to? Change. That’s right, I said it and I mean it. This whole mess could lead to change. How will we retain power and position with everyone clamering for new directions and spouting off new ideas.
    More than all this what if people studied LT and then determined where it actually errs? Huh? Have you considered that? If people discovered the truth about elevating political systems above the Christ’s Kingdom they may come to some very Un-SBC conclusions. They may decide that elevating the Republican Party to Vatican status is a bad idea.
    Ben please reconsider this ill-conceived post and take it down before you end the SBC and the Republican Party as we know it. Good grief man, think! What would Jesus do without us?

  42. First i want to say that there is a lot of whining on this post. Also has anyone ever thought of going to the library themselves and reading books on other subjects or from other traditions? That is what i have done and have learned much from it. Also since I have been at SWBTS there has been a class on modern theology tauhgt. so i guess it is a moot point. seems like Ben has not done his HW on this one.

    blackhaw- Carl

  43. This is a pipe dream. Do you really think that a conservative would be welcomed on faculty at noteworthy secular schools? You make it sound like secular universities are the end-all location for open-minded discussion. Nothing could be further from the truth. My own personal experience at public and liberal arts universities has been mirrored by many: they are as close-minded and arrogant as any fire-breathing fundamentalist. Get your facts straight. The one thing that is NOT tolerated in such an environment is conservatism. This is true for the student, and even more for faculty. Bright conservatives can’t get jobs at secular universities because they won’t even give someone like that an interview.

    >>>This is patently untrue. I personally have friends who are orthodox evangelical Christians who are working in secular universities as faculty members in a number of departments ranging from mathematics to philosophy and religion.

    Alvin Plantinga, for example, is at Notre Dame. He is John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy. Yes, Notre Dame is Roman Catholic…about as Roman Catholic, of course, as Wake Forest University is Southern Baptist.

    William P. Alston (born 1921) is professor emeritus at Syracuse University, and has been influential as an epistemologist. He earned his PhD from the University of Chicago and taught for many years at the University of Michigan.

    Nicholas Wolterstorff (born January 21, 1932 in Bigelow, Minnesota) is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, and Fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University.

    Each of those three is able to affirm the Westminster Standards.

    Michael Sudduth posts on the Reformed Baptist list from time to time. He is on faculty @ San Francisco State University. Here is his faculty page: http://www.sfsu.edu/~phlsphr/michael_sudduth.html

    I also have a friend, once known to bloggers at the Pedantic Protestant, one Eric Vestrup, who once posted with us at Triablogue as well as his own blog. He was, until recently, at DePaul on the Mathematics Faculty. He is an evangelical Lutheran as orthodox and conservative theologically as any conservative Baptist I know.

    You, friend, are the one who needs to get YOUR facts straight. They are in the MINORITY, but they are by no means “not given interviews.” They have their fair share of difficulty, but then nobody has argued otherwise. I would also note that these persons came from traditions other than our own.

  44. New to Ben Says:
    “This is a pipe dream. Do you really think that a conservative would be welcomed on faculty at noteworthy secular schools? You make it sound like secular universities are the end-all location for open-minded discussion. Nothing could be further from the truth. My own personal experience at public and liberal arts universities has been mirrored by many: they are as close-minded and arrogant as any fire-breathing fundamentalist. Get your facts straight. The one thing that is NOT tolerated in such an environment is conservatism. This is true for the student, and even more for faculty. Bright conservatives can’t get jobs at secular universities because they won’t even give someone like that an interview.”

    >>I can only speak from my own experience, having taken courses in two such schools during my most recent quest into continuing education, the most recent and only degree pursuit in my life outside the boudaries of Southern Baptist operated institutions of higher learning, and I did not find this to be the case at all. Don’t mistake the fact that “bright conservatives” are a distinct minority in such places for the exaggerated allegation that they aren’t there at all, and aren’t tolerated. That’s good fodder for right wing radio talk, but it isn’t fact. Their absence from such institutions is due as much to the fact that many “bright conservatives” are also pretty arrogant and exclusive, and would rather teach in some safe, conservative fortress than salt the academic world with the influence of their faith. I have great respect for those Christians I encountered in the secular institutions I attended who have a whole lot more spiritual influence where it counts, and aren’t holed up in some evangelical ivory tower.

  45. Ben,

    Great article. As a Ph.D student in Old Testament at a SBC seminary, I’ve actually been scorned (thankfully not by any in my division) for studying the critical methods of OT study (Source; Form; Redaction; etc). I agree with you 100 percent. Derek Lemen, my fellow Georgian, also made some excellent points above about God’s image in man and how that concept relates to truth.

    “If Christianity can be disproved by the weight of logical argumentation, then let it be disproved because then it will be found that we do not accept the truth” — Clement of Alexandria — I wish we as Baptists would be as daring as that ole Alexandrian with regard to intellectual honesty.



  46. Correction – Clement of Alexandria’s statement was “possess the truth” not “accept the truth.”

  47. I have spoken to people who know from SWBTS, Fordham, and St. Vladimir’s Seminary. They said basically that if one either comes from a confessional Seminary/university or is confessional then he/she might as well not apply to a secular state uniersity. There is the very few that are popular enough for the secular university to pursue them. Someone like Pelikan is a good example.

    Now I have heard that some old confessional schools (which really are not anymore) are beginning to open up more. I am speaking about schools like Yale and Harvard. But I would not try to get into these schools with a seminary degree. It is possible but one would have much better luck getting an university degree instead.

    So it is not impossible to see a conservative evangelical or at least a conservative Christian in a place like Yale, Princeton, Duke, etc. But do not expect to find many in a secular university.

    One point of correction. A professor could be a conservative evangelical if his discipline has nothing to do with theology or philosophy and he keeps his mouth shut about religion. But I do not think that is how evangelicals and other conservaitve Christians can change the society for Jesus.

  48. if you want to know how thoroughly inadequate our seminary training is, try spending 4 years at swbts (pre-Patterson even) earning an mdiv, and then getting on a jet plane to France to be a “missionary.” it takes about 24 hours to realize just how unprepared you are. as evangelicals, we have made our acceptable social box so small that we really have no idea how to relate to a secular, postmodern world. i was completely lost for a year or so over here. thank God for the gospels. it was in reading how Jesus interacted with “the others” that i myself learned to engage with the truly hurting. as i write this, i have up coming coffee appointments with a lesbian, an agnostic, a semi-committed catholic, and a night club dancer. can’t think if it will be my “survey of education administration” class or my “history of church music” class that will come in the most handy next week…..

    ps. i read your blog all the time. this is my first comment. i appreciate your courage, and your willingness to speak out.

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